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Non profits, web2.0 and the "where does my money go" question

Here's a coincidence that got me thinking: this week I came across the prototype UK site "Where does my money go?", the latest in a series of projects that aims to make government spending more transparent (see here and here for more examples). As it happens, I also spent a couple of hours on my favourite charities’ websites trying (unsuccessfully) to figure out where exactly they would invest the money I intended to donate for Christmas (for the record, I still made my donations, but not without some reservations).

“Traceability”, I had to conclude, is going to be a big thing in the Development Squared world. Just like government and businesses, due to new technologies, non-profits will be increasingly under pressure to provide easily accessible (and, increasingly, real time) information to answer the “where does my money go” question. When they will be reluctant do so, citizens’ initiatives are likely to step in (just witness the crowdsourcing efforts in the latest chapter of the UK MP’s expenses scandal, or visit Sourcemap for an attempt to crowdsource the supply chain of everyday products). "Adopt a child" or "buy a well" schemes will be increasingly under scrutiny from donors who expect the same level of accountability from NGOs as they would, say, from Nike and its suppliers, as the recent controversy around Kiva's "real" borrowers demonstrates (colleagues at CGAP have some sound advice for them).

Nor will traceability be limited to money. When will aid relief agencies, for example, be asked to adopt “internet of things” type of technology like the one recently employed by FedEx to track whether its packages have been opened or tampered with? (One can’t help thinking of those pictures from disaster zones where international food supplies end up in the most unexpected places). Just a couple of weeks ago, in the wake of a new UN/Vodafone report on social networks and new technologies in emergencies and conflict, the BBC called for “structural change” in the top-down and centralised nature of aid agencies that prevents them from making the most of new technologies.

Traceability, of course, also has some sinister implications, particularly when it comes to people and human rights. As Evgeny Morozov recently noted in a thoughtful piece,“despite what digital enthusiasts tell you, the emergence of new digital spaces for dissent also lead to new ways of tracking it. Analogue activism was pretty safe: if one node in a protest network got busted, the rest of the group was probably OK. But getting access to an activist’s inbox puts all their interlocutors in the frame, too”. The same point was made in a recent documentary on online activism underscoring its safety and security implications. Luckily, help might be at hand in the form of the first smartphone for activists which boasts “James-Bond-like features” aimed at protecting anonimity".

Forward-thinking non-profits, then, should already be thinking about the best way to use new technologies to embed traceability throughout their operations, and adopting polices to responsibly manage the ethical and security implications of digital activism.

“Where does my money go?" is a question that will require a much more sophisticated answer in a Development Squared world.

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